Daoism/Taoism represents a school of thought that developed over a period of 200-300 years. The word Dao/Tao in Chinese means the Way. Daoism is a philosophy about the proper path in life. Among its leading members were Yang Zhu (Yang Chu) (c.400 B.C.?), Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) (c.6th c. B.C. or 4th c.B.C.), and Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu)(c.369-286 B.C.). Daoism both resembled and differed from Confucian learning. On the one hand, it affirmed the truthful existence of the world (in contrast to the Buddhists, whom we will discuss later) and held a positive view toward this world. On the other hand, the Daoists shunned busy worldly pursuits and were against the Confucians' goals to restore ancient social order, not because they disliked the ancient order, but because they shunned any forms of (manmade) social order. In general, Daoists/Taoists could be described as hermits or recluses who doubted the human wisdom to present a social order that surpassed the order given by nature. Dominant in their philosophy is the belief that everything goes to their extremes, thus a perfect human social order also spells the end of that order. Thus the Daoists were advocates of do-nothing, not because they were pessimistic, or passive, but because of their deep realization of the limitations of human action in the vast universe.
Yang Zhu/Chu and self-preservation
Yang Zhu was one of the early Daoists. Knowledge of Yang Zhu today is pieced together from various ancient documents. Yang Zhu was known for his value of self-preservation. Although self-preservation was also important to Confucians, it had a different meaning for the Daoists. Self-preservation for Confucians was a way of respecting one's parents, a demonstration of filial piety, as the body was given by parents. Self-preservation for the Daoists was their way of preserving the primordial nature without altering it. Yang Zhu's idea of self-preservation, on the other hand, may be perceived as extreme by today's standards, as he was to said (if given a choice) to refuse to profit the whole world by plucking one hair. This, Fung says, did not stem from selfishness, but from the deep seated belief of the Daoists that the world as it is should not be altered, nor should the integrity of one's body be harmed (even if it meant plucking just one hair).
Lao Zi and "do-nothingness"
Like Yang Zhu, Lao Zi/Tzu emphasized the importance of self-preservation, for the same purpose of keeping the primordial world order intact. Thus he argued one who loved oneself more than the world would be able to govern the world. (Fung, 64) In addition to life-loving, Lao Tzu's argument also reflected his belief that the good ruler was one who would not try to impose a new social order on top of the existent, primordial one.
The "namable" and the "Unnamable"
Lao Tzu might not have been the author of Daodejing (The book of ethics), the book historically attributed to him. Fung argues that the book was written later than Lao Tzu/Zi the person, perhaps around 300 B.C., after the emergence of the School of Names (c. 350-250 B.C., see Fung, chap.8) [the debate over Lao Zi's birth date was a heated topic in 20th century China. One author, Hu Shi, who disagreed with Fung Yulan and some others, later fretted, "who cares about when Lao Zi was born. After all, he was not my father [Lao Zi, in Chinese, are also the characters for referencing the father]."] More than the Confucian thinkers, Mo Tzu/Zi or Yang Zhu, Lao Zi's arguments had a higher level of sophistication. Lao Tzu introduced the concepts of the namable and the unnamable. The focus on the names of things, showing a distinction between the things and their representations (names), was the creation of the School of Names. Lao Zi borrowed this tradition and tried to distinguish between the namable and unnamable in the world. The former included the specific things of the world, while the latter, the eternal, limitless, and primordial universe before it materialized into specific shapes. So they basically corresponded with the finite and specific and the infinite. (Thus, "The Unnamable is the beginning of Heaven and Earth," quoted in Fung, 94-95.) Lao Zi's thought was also influenced by the Yin-Yang School of Thought. Therefore, the yin and yang forces worked together to transform the unnamable to the namable, and subsets of yin and yang forces further worked to create the myriad world. Thus, to Lao Zi, the "namable is the mother of all things." (Fung, 95)
The way, or Dao/Tao, of the world, was unnamable, because it was the beginning of all beginnings and never ceased to be. It was all-encompassing, infinite, and the source of all specific forms.
"Being" and "non-being"
Corresponding to the "namable" and "unnamable" were the concepts of "being" and "non-being," to Lao Zi. The latter two concepts, however, did not mean existence and non-existence, but continued to refer to the distinction between specific/finite, and the infinite. Thus non-being simply referred to the primordial universe that had no limits or shapes, and the way Tao/Dao that was all-encompassing in that universe, leading to the creation of myriad specific things in the world.
The "Golden Mean" and "Do-Nothingness"
Besides recognizing the difference between thing/content and their names/representations, Lao Zi was also noted for his dialectical observation of change--everything would change to its extreme; hence the paradoxical conclusion that to achieve a goal one must begin with quite the opposite: to be strong one must retain weakness, to build capitalism (Fung's comments, 99) a society must keep some socialism (modern application). This balanced approach to things was called the Golden Mean (though the term first appeared in the Book of History/Book of Records, one of the Five Classics). And precisely because things become their opposites when they reach their extreme, for Lao Tzu one should interfere minimally with nature--the best ruler, therefore, was someone who would not exercise active rule (do-nothingness). Human efforts and desires interrupted the operation of the natural order. The ideal society, according to Lao Tzu, would consist of small kingdoms of small villages where people raised their own food and livestock, and kept mostly to themselves.
Zhuang Zi/Chuang Tzu and the metaphysical development of Daoism/Taoism
Daoism received a greater metaphysical twist in the hands of Zhuang Zi/Chuang Tzu (as noted before, the word zi/tzu is a respectful way of referring to someone. Zhuang Zi's name was Zhuang Zhou/Chuang Chou.), a contemporary of Mencius. Like Lao Tzu's book, the book Chuang Tzu/Zhuang Zi might not have been compiled by Chuang Tzu himself. Chuang Tzu's writing obviously followed upon that of Lao Tzu. Like the latter, Chuang Tzu applied the yin-yang school of thought to describe a dialectical development of the universe, from a shapeless/formless stage (non-being) to one with myriad things (being). Unlike the Confucians who conflated the human world and the natural world (especially in Mencius, where the human moral force qi, could fill up heaven and earth), Chuang Tzu was acutely conscious of the difference between rules in the natural world, and the human subjective world. One example that illustrates this is the story of Chuang Tzu singing upon his wife's death because death, although grievable to man, was part of the natural order.
Following the Dao as self-transcendence and oneness with nature
Like Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi/Chuang Tzu believed humans should try to conform to the Dao/Tao rather than create their own ways of doing things. More than Lao Zi, however, Zhuang Zi recognized the world of human sentiments/subjectivity. Thus Zhuang Zi's discussion of the dao focused on how to transcend individual human points of view and view humans as part of the universe, following the same rules as the rest of the universe, the Dao/Tao. The universe would to them become an undifferentiated whole that was unnamable, because naming would again make distinctions between things. The sage, for Zhuang Zi, was one who achieved the stage of (consciously) forgetting all knowledge--distinctions between things. This differed from ignorance or possessing no knowledge to begin with, because it was a conscious, enlightened decision, a move to consciously align with the rest of the world. Zhuang Zi's greatest contribution to Daoism was this emphasis on self-transcendence and his relativistic description of everything in the world, including death.